Binge Fringe Magazine

REVIEW: Varnish, Jonathan Mayor, VAULT Festival ★★★★★

How would you feel if you knew you were special, right from the start? The central crux on which Jonathan Mayor’s fictionalised version of his life lies opens a Pandora’s Box of questions about ego, addiction, stardom and compulsive lying. Varnish takes place at the seminal ‘An Audience with… Jonathan Mayor’, which quickly becomes a dizzying spiral into the narcissistic ramblings of a broken soul. The show’s writer Janet Taylor assures us that this is nothing like the real Jonathan Mayor, who parodies his life story in an utterly commanding performance as, well, not quite himself. Taylor has ghost-written a dark-timeline edition of the life of an adoptee-turned-superstar, and it is a dazzling achievement in creative adaptation. You simply must see it.

Our star enters to his very own soundtrack, whisking the audience up in a dazzling introduction to Jonathan’s glitterball world. His face is adorned with gold and red glitter, and eyeliner all the way up to his ears. Donning bright regency costume, he floats up the central aisle to his podium to take centre stage. The early section of the play is spent addressing the various omnipresent celebrities – Dame Judi Dench, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie among the stars who have joined us mere mortals in the celebration of Mayor, who clearly believes he is god’s gift to the Earth. Of course, Oprah is there to provide an impromptu interview, a la Harry and Meghan, Jonathan finally finding time in his schedule to bare all about his life. We are treated here early to the narrative philosophy of this piece, which seeks to engage us with a surface-level pop culture byte which soon cracks and reveals new levels to Jonathan’s broken ego.

Oprah, of course, ends up asking too many wrong questions, and Jonathan quickly discards her in favour of a huge toybox situated at the back of the stage. This is the introduction to Jonathan’s beginnings. He dramatises, for our benefit, the story of his soon-to-be adoptive parents arriving at an adoption agency in Oldham as if it were a Fairytale. Soon enough, the tension is punctured by the thick Mancunian accent of the agency worker, and reality begins to break through. This puncture of tension has the audience in stitches, as does the continual sexification and romanticisation of Oldham. Approaching the toybox in character as both of his parents in tandem, Jonathan begins tossing dolls across the stage, before finding his own mini-me replicated down to the eyeliner. Jonathan-in-miniature adorns a plinth at the back of the stage for the rest of the show, watching over his every move in wonderous reflection. In contrast, he places his three adopted siblings across the stage, his audience throughout, who he draws upon for love and adoration continually as his audience of stars refuse to offer it up.

In the story, Jonathan’s childhood is defined by the experience of being racially othered by both fellow children and the adults he encounters. He is a transracial adoptee, and to cope with the circumstances of his start in life we see adult Jonathan begin to fantasise and mythicise his youth. He is the son of a Mauritian prince, he claims. His mother left him in order to protect him from the paparazzi, he claims. The show skilfully navigates the world of coping mechanisms from this early point, showing how we construct false realities to compress and augment trauma into a narrative that suits our ‘life story’. Jonathan returns to the toybox continually throughout the show, evidencing he has struggled to process and progress beyond his childhood. This metaphor is a light dusting on the narrative, as the dolls also serve dual purpose to remind the audience of their relation to the character of Jonathan. We are the inanimate, placid receptacles for his trauma and ego.

The entertainment element of Jonathan’s life soon shifts into centre view, as he stages a live TV gameshow in which he is the host, but the entire thing is a ruse to sniff out his biological half-brother on the basis of vague memories in the ten days that Jonathan spent with his biological mother as a baby. There are sharp, and vivid, details here which the whole production crew must be congratulated. The placards which Jonathan holds while presenting the gameshow shift from the title of the show to a bunch of nonsensical question marks as the reveal becomes apparent. We are alienated (in the good sense) consistently in being reminded that all of this is fake, and designed to represent the inner workings of ego formation and destruction. We find out the origins of Jonathan’s fame, as he turns up to his friend’s private wedding in a dress and veil, begging the groom to marry him instead in self-absorbed jest. Jonathan again compulsively lies, to himself, to us, to Dame Judi Dench, about how it was received, as his coping mechanisms begin to fragment and deconstruct in front of us.

We shift through more phases in the life of a superstar – documentaries in which Jonathan, jacked up on hallucinogenic drugs, sees Satan himself at the bottom of a staircase, a Hollywood biopic fancifying how Jonathan found his biological mother, inevitable alcohol abuse and the slow comedown into facing reality. All of these are done with a sensitive touch, despite the very public breakdown of the character we see on stage. What I may not have yet got across is just how brilliantly fun it is to see Jonathan’s life and lies deteriorate and fall apart in front of his eyes. This is not because the events themselves are funny, but because the show is built around an ethos of childish destruction, sugar rush and tantrum. His inner child is never really inner, but an exoskeleton that holds around him and taints his every move in the world. The humour naturally arises from the fanciful creations of Jonathan’s mind, and watching them fall apart feels like the natural conclusion to his desperation.

The relationship to the real world sits like a portal adjunct to the stage the whole time – Jonathan could leave at any point, and is pulled back down to Earth by phone calls with his biological mother, staring down the bottle and the eventual conclusion surrounding a story with finding peace with his adoptive family. The elements of the piece in which Jonathan discusses being racially abused at all corners of his life, while simultaneously feeling special because of who he is, are dutifully entwined with the story of self-destruction. The piece is expressive, more than moral, in this sense, as Taylor and Mayor clearly want us to see how racial abuse and exceptionalism has laid onto the character of Jonathan’s sense of who he is, or, lack thereof.

It is incredibly easy to be enchanted by Varnish’s dazzling take on stardom. Jonathan, the performer, and Jonathan, the character, sit at the heart of the piece, but the show creates an entire world to be absorbed into. A world that is broken but fun, tragic but hysterical, false but true. Inanimate dolls we may be, but Jonathan-in-miniature sits atop us all to remind us how helplessly we can be sucked into crafting coping mechanisms for ourselves, how addiction is a disease not simply a choice, and how egos can bring us tumbling down. The character of Jonathan takes these things to the absolute extreme.

Varnish shimmers in a gleaming light of toxic reflection, made spectacular and uproariously funny by the central performance from Jonathan Mayor (the real Jonathan Mayor, whose stand-up I now feel dutifully inclined to see). The piece is absorbing and irresistibly audacious, while never losing the humour that lies at its core. Dazzling, sharp and hilarious, this won’t disappoint.

Recommended Drink: Varnish is best polished off with a Passionfruit Martini – as bright and bold as it’s central character with a cutting edge that sticks with you.

Catch Varnish at VAULT Festival until February 5th at 18:30, 15:00 & 18:00. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.

Jake Mace

Our Lead Editor & Edinburgh Editor. Jake loves putting together reviews that try to heat-seek the essence of everything they watch. They are interested in New Writing, Literary Adaptations, Musicals, Cabaret, and Stand-Up. Jake aims to cover themes like Class, Nationality, Identity, Queerness, and AI/Automation.

Festivals: EdFringe (2018-2024), Brighton Fringe (2019), Paris Fringe (2020), VAULT Festival (2023), Prague Fringe (2023-24), Dundee Fringe (2023)
Pronouns: They/Them